How to Read Your Credit Reports

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This post comes from Gerri Detweiler at partner site Credit.com.

You’ve decided to take the plunge and review your credit reports. The first part — getting them — should be easy enough. Just hop over to AnnualCreditReport.com and request them online, by telephone or by mail.

Once you have them, the fun begins. You get to read and try to understand your credit reports. It may seem daunting at first; after all, most reports consist of pages and pages of information. But as that saying about how to eat an elephant goes, you just tackle it one bite (or bit) at a time.

The following are the main things you will want to review.

Personal information

When reviewing this section, which contains information such as your name (and variations), current and previous addresses, etc., your main goal should be to make sure your personal information is correct and up-to-date. Slight variations of an old address or minor misspellings shouldn’t be much of an issue.

But if there is an address listed and you have never lived there, or your reports list a version of your name you have never used, you will want to ask the credit reporting agency to investigate. It could mean that your information is mixed up with someone else’s or that someone has tried to use your information fraudulently.

Account information

In this section you will see information about credit accounts you currently have, as well as some or all of your older accounts. It may take you a moment to understand everything listed here, but be patient with yourself as you figure it out. You should see the following details about each account (when relevant):

  • Name of creditor.
  • Date opened.
  • Type of account (installment, revolving, open).
  • Ownership — individual, joint account or authorized user.
  • Highest balance and/or credit limit.
  • Current balance.
  • Payment status (current or delinquent).
  • Past payment history month by month.

Your main goal here is to make sure information is accurate. It’s a lot to digest, particularly the first time you look through it. Highlight anything you aren’t sure about, so you can come back to it after you have reviewed your entire report.

Keep in mind that some things you think may be wrong may not be. For example, your balance will typically be reported as of the statement date, which means the account could show a balance even if you pay it off in full. Or an account may still appear on your credit report even though you closed it years ago.

If you do find mistakes, however, you will want to dispute them with the credit reporting agency.

Inquiries

Here you’ll find information about any companies that have reviewed your credit reports and/or obtained a credit score in the past two years. It’s natural to be concerned about the fact that too many inquiries may hurt your credit scores, but for most people the majority of inquiries won’t affect their scores.

That’s because most of them will be “soft inquiries,” or inquiries that are ignored when credit scores are calculated. Soft inquiries include those generated for promotional or preapproved credit offers, or “account review” inquiries generated when your current lenders review your credit.

Public record information

In this part of your credit report you’ll find bankruptcies, judgments, tax liens and/or collection accounts. One of the most important things to check here is that the dates listed are correct since they may directly affect how long these items will affect your credit.

Collection accounts can be reported seven years plus 180 days from the date you first fell behind with the original creditor; bankruptcies may be reported for 10 years from the filing date (seven years in the case of Chapter 13); paid judgments may appear for seven years from the date the judgment was entered by the court; and paid tax liens may be reported for seven years from the date they were entered.

Who is that?

One common source of confusion is the names of companies found in the accounts and/or inquiries sections. This happens because the name of the business checking or reporting credit may be different from the name of the business you think you’re dealing with. (Your airline rewards credit card, for example, isn’t likely to be listed under the airline’s name; it will appear under the issuer’s name.)

Still, if you don’t recognize the name of a company listed on your credit reports, it’s worth investigating. After all, inquiries or accounts with companies you don’t recognize can be an early indication of identity theft. Full contact information for each company should be listed on your credit report so that you can contact them directly. If not, ask the CRA for that information.

Help! I still don’t understand my report

If, after carefully reviewing your credit report, you still don’t understand all the information it contains, your first step should be to contact the credit reporting agency that supplied it. You should find a report number listed at the top of your credit report. You will want to use that when you contact the CRA as it will make things easier and faster.

Contact the CRA using the phone number or address supplied on your report. By law, they must provide trained personnel who can help you understand the information in your report.

What does it mean?

One thing your credit report won’t tell you is whether your credit is “good” or “bad.” That’s a judgment call on the lender’s part, and chances are they use credit scores to help make that decision. You can get your free credit score using a service like Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card. In addition to your score, you will also get a breakdown of the main factors affecting your credit scores.

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